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Rip Education

By Craig Riddington – Director SEA Australia & Float to Survive.


Rips and waves

Rips work with waves, a wave is a swell generated out in the ocean - that breaks when it hits shallow water. The broken waves are described as white-water. Rips are formed due to the excess water on the shoreline from the waves, forcing the ocean to  equalize


What is a rip?

To describe a rip in its simplest form - it is a flow of water generated by the breaking waves, that flows away from the beach. The waves break in the shallower water (sandbanks) and the rips flow in the deeper channels alongside the sandbanks. Deeper areas can be seen along the shoreline feeding into the rip.











Rip's dark gaps between white-water (waves on sandbanks)

How to identify a rip

Most rips sit in between sandbanks so it is quite easy to see the deeper water channels between the white-water on the sandbanks. Because the water is deeper it is darker in colour. Most rips have feeder currents that run off the sandbanks along the beach until they flow into the main channel, because it is deeper the waves will not be breaking in these areas. Rips can sometimes be difficult to see when there is a lot of wind, or at high tide when there is not as much water moving




                                                       Headland rips – mostly fixed                                                                                beach rips – vary always due to conditions  


If you look closely enough in the rip, you will see a rippled effect on the surface, this is due to the water running against the natural flow of the ocean - like a river. You can see the broken waves (white-water) change back to a swell when they hit the deeper channels near the shoreline


Misconceptions about rips and waves?

People have been told and continue to be told that rips go 'out to sea" resulting in a swimmer caught in a rip stopping at nothing to get back to the beach, including swimming against a rip until drowning occurs.

Rips go off the beach not "out to sea"; approximately 90% angle toward the breaking waves after moving off the shore, and end up returning swiftly to a sandbank. From here the water moves back toward the beach with the waves. Less than 10% of rips go out past the surf break, these usually in larger unmanageable surf conditions
















Experiments with DR Rob Brander - dye reaches sandbank and heads back with the waves

Some people think that rips are associated with an undertow, and fear getting taken underwater.


This is not the case - rips do not drag a floating object under water.


People think that waves are dangerous and are the cause of drowning. This is also one of the reasons why victims may choose to swim in the perceived calmer water of a rip where there are no waves, and why they may try to swim away from the waves when rips turn onto the sandbank.


Waves are enormous amounts of water travelling into the beach, a large breaking wave can be turbulent at first, however it is difficult for most swimmers to get to this outer area without riding a rip. Once a rip connects back into the wave area, the water will push floating objects or people back towards the beach.









Swimming area (left), with rip adjacent (right)

Rips are not killers, they are just a flow of water, and it is the action that a human takes that ultimately leads to drowning through panic, swimming and then fatigue.

Take out the fear factor - "if I can float and keep my airways above the water, I should not drown" instead of "if I get caught in a rip I will drown" Most drowning in the surf occurs when the surf is no more than 3 ft, and the drowning occurs just metres off the shoreline, not out past the surf break

To survive a rip

The simplest method to survive a rip is to “Float to Survive”, do whatever you have to stay afloat, don’t panic, don’t fight the rip. Allow the rip to take you in most cases to the sandbank (where the waves are breaking) where you will reach safety. If you are near others - wave your arms and/or yell for help, if you are alone conserve all energy at all costs.

If you decide to try and swim out of a rip, don’t! Instead - move with the current with your head above water at an easy pace to conserve energy (this action is called active floating). Follow the rip to where the waves are breaking and once there - allow the waves to push you back to the beach, or even walk back if the sandbank is shallow.

Make sure you follow the shallowest water back to the beach to avoid falling off the sand bank - back into the rip. Allow the white-water to hit you in the back to push you back to the beach; don’t dive under the waves as the water under the waves travels outward (more about this in my surf tips)

The key is to reduce the potential for panic by encouraging people caught in rips to stay calm, stay afloat, and signal for help.

Floating is the best way to keep our head above water for longer. The word float is generally associated with pleasant, relaxation, calmness, and energy conservation, the opposite to float is to sink.

Why I think that the "swim parallel to the beach" message is flawed

This message is based on very old rip diagrams (below) based on theory only, that show rips traveling straight through the surf zone and way out to sea, with a mushroom shaped head dispersing in all directions and carrying turbulent sand with it. The diagram is not consistent with scientific experiments, expert findings, pictures, diagrams and video footage. I do note that some rips can exit just past the surf break.


Rip diagram dated back to early 1900’s, not based on evidence, research or surf expertise

  • Swimming is not the best way to ensure a safe exit from a rip, and swimming requires your airways to be underwater. Psychologically the word swim is generally associated with - extreme use of energy, racing, fast and thoughtless movements, effort, strain, panic, if I can't swim - I'm in trouble. This leads to a decreased ability to stay afloat

  • Most rip currents in Australia do not flow straight offshore. They flow at inconsistent angles to the beach in one direction only, which means that a person swimming parallel to the beach will, more than likely end up swimming against the current.

  • Much of the water entering rips enters from the side, either from feeder currents along the beach or from draining off of adjacent sand bars. Swimmers will again end up swimming against the current.

  • It assumes people can swim well enough to swim against the current to escape a rip, which is mostly not the case.

  • It assumes people have an understanding that they are caught in a rip. Studies have shown that 60% of Australians do not know what a rip is. This does not include overseas tourists.

  • It promotes people to take immediate action which may contribute to panic. Panic is the main cause of rip current drowning.

  • If you don’t swim – the chances are you will quickly be deposited to a safe sandbank in little time with minimal energy consumed






























Background - Rips along NSW coastline

The New South Wales coastline has 721 open surf beaches spanning over 1100km. These beaches are characterised by dynamic geographical processes (rips, waves and currents), resulting in an average of around 5000 rescues and 30 drowning each year


Rip currents are responsible for more than 90% of all surf rescues (near drowning) and most drowning. Rip currents are a natural hazard within the surf zones along the whole of the NSW coastline. Rips are generally not understood and can be meters way from safe swimming areas - sometimes indicated by red and yellow swim flags. Most rips along the coastline are not sign posted; they are not permanent and cannot be identified by the majority of the population.


Australian Rip Systems – Friend or Foe?


A. D. Short††Coastal Studies Unit School of Geosciences F09 University of Sydney NSW 2006, Australia

SHORT (1999a) provides a detailed description of rip currents, while SHORT (2006) reported the presence of 13 500 beach rips and 4000 topographic rips operating on a normal day around Australia. Globally tens of thousands of rips will be operating on any given day, wherever waves are breaking across a surf zone. Rips are an intrinsic part of surf zone circulation, particularly on wave-dominated and some tide-modified intermediate beach systems. They are responsible for the return of water seaward and thereby flushing of the surf zone. Because of their often strong velocities they can also move sediment seaward, and therefore play an important role in surf zone sediment transport, particularly offshore sand transport during beach erosion. The strong seaward rip flow in often a deeper rip channel will also transport seaward any buoyant object located in the flow, including flotsam and people. Because of this rips have posed a considerable threat to bathers ever since they started entering the surf zone. In the process these same rips have resulted in the drowning of many thousands of people, and today rip currents are recognised as the major hazards to bathers in Australia, where they are responsible for more than 90% of all surf rescues and most drowning (SHORT, 1999b)


Patrolled beaches enable people to remain safer provided they swim in between a very small flagged area; however statistics show that most surf drowning occurs outside patrolled areas. It is unrealistic to assume that people will always swim between the flags simply because flags are not accessible to a large majority of beach goers in NSW - particularly outside of peak seasons. Of the 721 open surf beaches there are only 129 surf lifesaving clubs and 50% of coastal drowning occurs more than 5km away from a lifesaving service. Drowning occurs randomly at remote beach locations and notably after patrol hours at patrolled beach locations. Although people do attempt to swim within or near patrolled areas - near drowning occurs regularly at every location patrolled by Surf Lifesavers and Lifeguards (this information is contained in Surf Lifesaving NSW and Council reports), New South Wales beaches are mostly unpatrolled throughout the year and signage (mostly ignored) is inadequate with little definition of the dangers of Rip Currents.



I hope this information will give you confidence to conquer your goals in the surf in a safe manner, allowing rips to become your friend rather than a threat. Treat the ocean with respect, and don’t fight it - rather always go with it.


For more information and in particular our initiatives with SEI - go to our websites

Yours in Surfing









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